Liszt and romantic progressivism fallen into vain

There’s no denying it: Romantic composers never cease to amaze us with their modernity, so much for the unchanging persistence of music composed before a specific historical period (a fixed idea of many music lovers and conductors today). For example, Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), in addition to his religious vows, had also embraced social, artistic, and political progressivism to put even Marx to shame!

The music of the time, with the legacy of the classics (in particular, Haydn and Mozart) and pre-romantic (i.e., Beethoven), now seemed burdened with a mortgage burden that was almost impossible to liquidate. Yet many theatergoers of the time were beginning to dislike the constant references to the past and unwillingly paid for theater tickets when the programs did not promise at least a few surprises.

Painting entitled "Liberty Leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix
“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix was painted in 1830 and housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The ideals of liberty, social redemption, equality, and fraternity, inspired by the French Revolution, often referenced Romantic culture. Liszt himself praised the Marseillaise as a hymn of the people and for the people, as music is no longer elitist and limited to a few connoisseurs, but instead spread to all classes, without distinction.

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

This was before the term “classical music” was coined to refer to a sequence of “bodies” on display. I know, the phrase is a bit heavy-handed and, indeed, not disparaging in nature (me being the first admirer). Still, the bitter truth is that if Franz Listz looked to the masses, stratified into social classes dictated, not by appointments and investitures, but rather by the pressing industrial power that spread like wildfire, we (about 150 years after his death) look to his stereotype, as the only source of “cultured” music worth listening to.

The trouble, as is easy to guess, is that social classes are not only not dead (i.e., communism only whitewashed facades and fattened oligarchs) but have put down deep roots, especially socio-culturally. By this, I do not mean that the nineteenth-century workers were educated; on the contrary, likely, the bourgeoisie did not care much for culture either, but the problem is that if the “Paganini” of the piano considered the elites of the time as deleterious, today he would end up taking refuge in a Pacific atoll in order not to realize how obtuse and short-sighted evolution has been.

Because evolution has (inevitably) taken place, and we have already talked about the dominance gained by pop music, one has to ask: Is this really what Listz so desired? He often spoke of “musical progress,” marking with as much emphasis as possible the ever-changing reality to which art had to relate. He observed the birth and growth of an industrial society, where the strong powers were not the aristocrats but lay like lapdogs at the feet of bankers and captains of industry.

When it is a composer from the past who sees the future

In other words, Franz Liszt understood two basic things well: first, that music lovers were no longer to be sought within the drawing rooms, and second, that music not palatable to the working-class and lower-middle-class masses was doomed to fail its purpose. Reading the theater programs in 2024, we can undoubtedly say, “Poor deluded!”

Not only did his idea drift further and further away from “consumer” music (the kind he wished for when he hoped the songs would be sung by workers, office workers, and managers), but it also foundered against much sharper rocks. If Liszt saw the marriage of music and poetry as the crowning glory of an artistic endeavor aimed at representing society in a comprehensive and, above all, engaging way, we might ask what became of his purpose and wish.

The answer is at least as simple as the result: pop music has taken the place that the “great” composers guarded, while a parallel branch, with the features of an Egyptian mummy, has crystallized in a pose that recalls a perennial déjà-vu. Truncated by an inflated nothingness like Zeppelin, artistic directors of theaters and conductors of related orchestras announce with smiles that they will usher in the new symphonic year with Schumann’s music.

So much for the intentions of poor Liszt, who wanted mass dissemination, the breaking down of all elitist boundaries, the representation of popular culture, and so on! While Spotify broadcasts music written the day before, they, in fancy dress, sing (rightly) the praises of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart, oblivious to the fact that some 200 years have passed since their last work.

Group of people at a pop music concert
Stadiums can become the new concert halls as long as music and poetry regain their strength and merge into an increasingly strong and inescapable bond.

Evolving arts versus “corpse” music

Does it mean that they must fall into oblivion? Never! This would be silly before it is even irreverent. It is as if Picasso had overshadowed Michelangelo or Raphael, De Chirico had made people forget Giotto, or Pirandello had ridiculed Boccaccio or Shakespeare. But after this slew of comparisons, a question timidly arises: why is Picasso held in such high regard? Why is the prose play “Six Characters in Search of an Author” considered a masterpiece? Why is Frank Lloyd Wright’s “House on the Waterfall” hailed on par (or nearly so) with St. Peter’s dome?

Interesting questions, aren’t they? The usual consequence is to ask, why, in music, is Bob Dylan considered a dwarf in front of Schubert? Why is Morricone, much actually treated as a film composer, charming, but who cannot hold a candle to Mahler? In short, why did all the arts follow Franz Liszt’s invitation and “cultured” music, the first recipient of his words, self-segregate into a museum of anatomy and paleontology?

I believe the reason is simple. “Popular” music has followed the course of events, updated itself continuously, experimenting and constantly seeking new ways of expression. In a sense, Liszt’s hope of hearing the songs among the crowds of workers was crowned. But then, why complain? Unfortunately, the composer does not clarify that the marriage of music and poetry must marry musical engagement with poetic engagement. “Commitment,” meaning the pursuit of quality through true spiritual inspiration.

Certainly, this has happened in many cases, especially from a poetic point of view, because several pop and rock song lyrics are dense in content and pleasing to even the most refined palates. Unfortunately, however, the music and many song lyrics at the top of the charts can be classified as examples of the exercise of stupidity! And most seriously, the record industry (analogous to the same society deprecated and condemned by Liszt), in fostering craftsmanship with low pretensions, feeds the so-called”mainstream,” supporting, willy-nilly, the cause of the nostalgics of classicism.

Conclusions

Whose fault is it then (if fault it is)? Certainly, we can immediately exonerate classical and romantic composers, and, in a sense, “pardon” Chopin’s lovers and Haydn’s oratorios. Indeed, there is no reason to blame those who reject the ugly. As I have already had to say, if it is indispensable to find a scapegoat, the only “culprits” are precisely contemporary composers.

So much for Liszt’s rave praise addressed to the Marseillaise! The unhealthy idea of intellectualistic music, chained by conceptions that cannot be decoded without repeated explanation, and the rejection of the”mainstream” have contributed to letting all the romantic virtuoso’s vague ambitions fall into vain. Taylor Swift certainly does not need Caroline Shaw, and the latter can follow her ideas by giving up the luxurious life of rappers who think they are the new Dante Alighieri! In short, no one needs the other in an unparalleled circle of “selfishness.”

We are, therefore, in an impasse that seems to have no way out. Yet the solution is straightforward: poets (please, let’s not call them “lyricists”) could start writing lyrics suitable for music, and, even not imitating the concept of total art advocated by Wagner, pop composers could start restudying harmony and composing music, based yes on modern instruments (with much-appreciated “intromissions” of strings, flutes, harps, etc.), but worthy of being juxtaposed with Schubert’s Lieder or Faurè’s songs.

In short, Franz Liszt’s lesson is elementary: music must be progressive because society is perpetually evolving, and any form of conservatism is not only detrimental but completely unnecessary. In addition, music-goers, as is the case today, are also the people sitting and waiting in barbers’ and hairdressers’ salons, and, to put it bluntly, given the massive difference in numbers, it is precisely the latter who should be the privileged recipients of good music, not just those who pay for tickets to sit in half-empty concert halls listening to Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets.

Never forget the past, then, and never think that Bach or Mozart wrote perishable music. But time can neither be stopped nor slowed down, so let us try to follow Listz’s example and stop compartmentalizing for “connoisseurs.” Far too many works of art (for connoisseurs) rot in museum cellars. It is high time to avoid such waste and not let the industry dictate its standards because usability is not birthed by triviality but sheer quality art!

Brief biographical note on Franz Liszt

Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), Hungarian composer, virtuoso pianist, and conductor, was one of the most influential musicians of the Romantic era. Liszt’s major musical contributions include his innovative piano compositions that expanded the boundaries of progressions and traditional harmonic forms. His works, such as the “Transcendental Studies” and “Hungarian Rhapsodies,” are known for their technical brilliance and emotional depth.

Apart from his musical genius, Liszt was also a key figure in developing the symphonic poem, a form in which a non-musical work, such as a poem or painting inspire a piece of instrumental music. Liszt’s symphonic poems, such as “Les Preludes” and “Mazeppa,” showcased his ability to evoke vivid images and narratives through music.

Stamp issued in Germany (GDR) in 1961 to celebrate composers Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz
A stamp was issued in Germany (GDR) in 1961 to celebrate the composers Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) and Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869). The two had an intense relationship, and Liszt, a lover of program music, found in Berlioz a perfect example of how musical art could evolve.

In addition to his musical contributions, Liszt was known for his philosophical works on music and art. He championed the idea of “program music,” in which instrumental music conveys a narrative or extra-musical idea, paving the way for composers such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. Franz Liszt’s legacy as a composer, pianist, and thinker continues to influence musicians and music lovers worldwide.


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Truths, myths, and fantasies about Segovia: a short journey through the notes of classical guitar

Andrés Segovia (1893 – 1987) was unquestionably one of the greatest and most influential musicians of the last century, devoted wholeheartedly to the dissemination of the classical guitar, and, as is often the case in such cases, his fame has become multifaceted, enriched by legends, false attributions and an almost blinding mythologizing, which has made it extremely difficult for many users of his music to exercise critical activity.

In this article, I wish to highlight some peculiar aspects of Segovian work and, at the same time, try to demolish some of the most unfounded myths. As a classical guitarist, I cannot tolerate the spread of superficial and false judgments that permanently harm the music, too. Only by being frank can Segovia be restored to his rightful place and prevent completely wrong ideas from taking hold without anyone working to correct them.

Andrés Segovia while playing at the Alhambra palace in Granada
Andrés Segovia while playing at the Alhambra Palace in Granada (a complete film is also available).

Segovia and the musical heritage for guitar

The first thesis I would like to highlight concerns a judgment I have often encountered: “Segovia is the father of the (classical) guitar as a noble instrument.” First of all, I would like to point out that, in my opinion, talking about noble and plebeian instruments is undoubtedly not an excellent way to start a discussion. Various composers of the caliber of Beethoven and Mahler “ennobled” all sorts of instruments, including them in their symphonies to achieve particular timbres that traditional ensembles did not contemplate.

But even if we accept the juxtaposition between widespread and concert use of the guitar, the problem remains with the veracity of the above statement. Suffraging it lightly is, in fact, not only dangerous to the history of music but also unfair to a variety of composers who devoted their lives to the guitar.

While it is true that this marvelous instrument, given its flexibility, became extremely popular in not overly cultured circles, this does not detract from the fact that, between the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were properly “cultured” musicians who published methods, progressive studies, concert studies, sonatas, concertos, etc.

Fernando Sor, Dionisio Aguado, Mauro Giuliani, Ferdinando Carulli, Matteo Carcassi, Francisco Tarrega, etc., are key players in the flourishing of the guitar during the Romantic period. If we also add Niccolò Paganini (yes, the violinist), who loved the guitar, practiced on it, and composed dozens and dozens of concert sonatas, I think it is pretty clear that before 1893, the year of Segovia’s birth, the guitar scene was already very well nourished.

Francisco Tarrega while playing the guitar in the traditional classical setting.
Francisco Tarrega (1852 – 1909) while playing the guitar in the traditional classical setting.

So why do people close their eyes to the evidence and think all the credit goes to the master? While also based on some deductions, the response breaks a lance in favor of Segovia’s hosannas.

The fate of the guitar during and after Romanticism

To begin with, a clarification should be made: the guitar, like many other instruments (piano, primarily), has not always existed in its current conformation. On the contrary, it has undergone numerous changes based on the expressive needs that musicians demanded.

Without doing a historical reconstruction that is beyond the scope of this article, I can say right away that the most famous ancestor of the guitar is one of the most famous Renaissance and Baroque instruments (especially during the early period): the lute. It was not only, to all intents and purposes, a “noble” instrument but also allowed a vast literature of early music to reach us, which nowadays, despite the existence of numerous lutenists, finds its most natural place in the guitar.

The works, to give an example, of Luis de Milán, John Dowland, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, and, most importantly, Johann Sebastian Bach (even if some of them are arrangements of violin partitas made by the computer itself, e.g., BWV 1006a) provide guitarists with a heritage of the highest quality that can only help to ennoble this fascinating instrument and enrich the concert repertoire with characteristic musicality that can captivate even those who do not have a thorough knowledge of the historical period.

Lady playing a lute, in a 1530 painting attributed to the school of Bartolomeo Veneto
Lady playing a lute in a 1530 painting attributed to the school of Bartolomeo Veneto.

However, Romanticism, a period that, albeit eventually, saw Segovia’s birth, elected the piano as the instrument par excellence. Dozens of more or less famous composers traveled to Paris to compose and try to disseminate their works. I am not referring to the likes of Chopin, who seemed destined for the piano from the cradle, but to composers like Albéniz, who, from Spain, came to the French capital and, while eager to “export” the musicality of their homeland, chose the piano without a second thought.

Albéniz’s celebrated suite espanola (containing well-known pieces in the guitar realm as Asturias – Leyenda or Sevilla) was written for the keyboard instrument. However, it contains solid references to the guitar. It is no accident that transcriptions of the suite have become so widespread that many pieces seem to have originated for guitar. Suppose an arrangement of a Chopin nocturne is always a gamble. In that case, Asturias’ guitar version (I say this without hesitation) is musically more “accomplished” on the guitar (where, in particular, the opening and closing arpeggios spread out like a dusky-toned carpet) than on the piano.

From that background, Segovia found himself with an instrument of endless possibilities and a dominant culture that seemed blinded by ebony and ivory keys. There was a very substantial literature of quality works (e.g., Giuliani’s Rossiniane, Sor’s Gran Solo, and, no doubt, many Paganini sonatas), but what Segovia felt was a distinct lack of continuity. Indeed, his present seemed to have transposed the guitar to domains increasingly distant from the grand stages of theaters and, simultaneously, increasingly immersed in the noisy atmospheres of bars and taverns.

Another not minor fact was related to the spread of pop music (hated by Segovia): if the piano had been the stronghold of the Romantics, the guitar (especially in its acoustic versions with metal and electric strings) was gaining a foothold in blues music, jazz, etc. and, a little later, would also become the quintessential instrument of rock music.

It is not strange then that after developing an overpowering technique based on an extraordinary timbral sampler, Segovia faced a far more long-standing problem. While he did not despise the existing literature (although his judgments were often affected by various idiosyncrasies), he understood it was almost impossible to hold a concert in a large hall in Paris or New York with only that repertoire. What the guitar lacked was compositional continuity from “educated” musicians.

For this reason, he began requesting new compositions and transcribing works that, according to his taste, could fit nicely on the guitar. In that sense, it must be said that his work was remarkable and certainly worthy of praise. Despite his somewhat rigid mindset, he was able to persuade several composers to write new music for the guitar, thus, in a short time, enriching the stock available to concertgoers.

Program of a 1935 guitar concert by Andrés Segovia
Program of a 1935 concert by Andrés Segovia

It is also true that his less-than-easy character (paradigmatic is the case of his relationship with Barrios, whom he unsuccessfully asked to dedicate to him the sonata “La Catedral” and which, out of spite, he decided not only not to play but also to discredit with all his students) and his lack of interest in atonal experiments (which were becoming increasingly popular) led him to isolate altogether many works that would only be rediscovered later, but this does not detract from the fact that without his efforts, the classical guitar would never have taken off again.

Segovia and guitar technique

Another controversial aspect concerns the guitar technique. In this sense, it should be clarified that Segovia did not invent anything dramatically different from what had already been established. In the nineteenth century, composers such as Aguado and Sor published their methods, explaining the fundamentals of the technique, even giving rise to a diatribe over fingernails (Aguado was in favor, while Sor preferred “bare” fingertips).

Detail of Segovia's right hand
Detail of Segovia’s right hand. Note the protruding fingernails, short enough to allow the rope to slide over the fingertip.

What Segovia did was to study such fundamentals and “discover” elements that, on paper, could only be described in a very sketchy way. In particular, the most outstanding merit was related to timbre research. He understood that the best results could be achieved with relatively short nails, such that the strings could be struck but, at the same time, soften the touch, if necessary, with the fingertip. In addition, Segovia developed a keen ability to move his right hand from the pit to the bridge to achieve rapid timbral changes.

His distinctive sound (an average ear recognizes it immediately) resulted from several factors that stemmed not from technique per se but from exploring the possibilities offered by the instrument. It is, therefore, inaccurate to attribute to Segovia elements of setting already found in earlier musicians. Still, it is correct (on the assumption that there are no recordings of Sor or Giuliani) to say that his emphasis on timbre was a distinctive element that contributed significantly to his worldwide success.

In addition, Segovia welcomed the proposal to use nylon strings (“bare” for the treble three and metal coated for the bass). This new “configuration” allowed him to increase the timbral range of the guitar with a “vertical” differentiation (the bass voices already sounded darker, while the treble was brighter) that proved exceptionally fruitful, especially in the performance of polyphonic music (e.g., Bach or Scarlatti).

The Segovia School and the “Segovians”

A key chapter in Segovia’s life concerns his teaching activities. Although he never taught permanently in a conservatory, the master often held master classes where some of the most famous guitarists trained (e.g., Julian Bream, John Williams, Eliot Fisk, Cristopher Parkening, Oscar Ghiglia, etc.). Is it then correct to speak of a lineup of “segovians”?

In my opinion, there is nothing more wrong. This is one of the most rugged and dangerous territories to tackle, but I will try to summarize my ideas. Segovia imparted his interpretive ideas to his students, helping them achieve articulation that exploited the guitar’s full potential. However, none of his most distinguished pupils developed an imitative style, neither in terms of sonority nor even in terms of repertoire.

One only has to listen to Bream or Williams to realize immediately that their playing is “unique” and not based on a slavish study of their master’s way of experiencing. In other words, using a metaphor, we can say that Segovia was more of a spark than an actual explosion. The sharpest students learned how to achieve the same richness as their teacher, but they followed the most pleasant path. They were, that is, “segovian,” but not at all segovian (I hope the instrumental use of quotation marks is straightforward).

Julian Bream, one of the greatest contemporary guitarists
Julian Bream (1933 – 2020) was one of the greatest contemporary guitarists and “favorite” pupil of Segovia.

Unfortunately, while the most talented have been able to enhance the ideas with the right critical spirit, a large group of pseudo-Segovians have begun to “ape” Segovia, focusing mainly on two elements: repertoire and technique. In the first case, the result was a flattening of guitar interpretive production (in a sense, the opposite of what the master desired), with programs that repeatedly seemed to be printed with the same cliché. In the second, you completely misrepresented the teaching of Aguado, Sor, Giuliani, etc., and transited through Segovia, going so far as to hail the most unbearable pedantry.

There are dozens and dozens of guitarists (including yours truly) ready to tell how they spent months of lessons millimetrically adding hand position, reducing or increasing back arching, and so on. All this, as useless as it was harmful, resulted from an attempt at imitation devoid of logical meaning. Instead of systematizing technical concepts cum grano salis, they often preferred to take refuge in a dullness that was indisposed, making central, not music, but a form of postural gymnastics.

Summary biographical note

Andrés Segovia, born Feb. 21, 1893, in Linares, Jaén, Spain, was a legendary classical guitarist and composer (although, in reality, his output was limited to a few studies). He is widely considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time and played a significant role in elevating the guitar to a respected classical instrument.

Segovia began playing the guitar at a young age and quickly demonstrated exceptional talent. He received his formal music education at the School of Fine Arts in Granada and later at the Royal Conservatory of Madrid. Despite initial skepticism from traditionalists who believed that the guitar was not suitable for classical music, Segovia’s dedication and perseverance led him to become a pioneer for this instrument.

Throughout his career, Segovia toured extensively, captivating audiences worldwide with his virtuosic performances and unique interpretations of classical, baroque, and contemporary compositions. His exceptional technique, timbre, and playing style set new standards for guitarists worldwide, spawning a generation of “followers” who drew inspiration from his relating to the instrument.

In addition to his extraordinary performing career, Segovia was instrumental in expanding the classical guitar repertoire. He has collaborated with renowned composers such as Manuel Ponce, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, inspiring them to write music specifically for the guitar. Segovia also transcribed and arranged numerous pieces initially composed for other instruments, demonstrating the versatility and capabilities of the guitar.

Segovia’s influence on the classical guitar extended beyond his performances and compositions. He devoted his life to promoting the artistic and educational value of the instrument. He has organized master classes, taught countless students, and written instructional books that have become essential resources for guitarists.

Andrés Segovia’s contribution to the guitar has earned him numerous awards and honors, including honorary doctorates, knighthoods, and the prestigious Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. His legacy inspires generations of guitarists, and his recordings remain prized classics in the classical music world.

Andrés Segovia died June 2, 1987, in Madrid, Spain, leaving a profound mark on the guitar world. His dedication, passion, and transformative influence have solidified his place as a true legend in classical guitar.

Segovia obituary on the front page of the New York Times. Photo shows the maestro playing at a solo guitar concert
The obituary of Andrès Segovia is on the front page of the New York Times.

Conclusions

Talking about Segovia requires a lot of space, and one cannot focus on all aspects of his art. My goal was to address some elements that have too often been misunderstood or misinterpreted. I will undoubtedly return to write articles regarding his style concerning specific composers, focusing more on the essential details.

For now, I can only invite all music lovers to listen to Segovia’s varied recordings, enjoy his extraordinary timbre, and ultimately appreciate the work done to enhance the guitar far beyond all possible expectations.

Of course, I will gladly answer your questions and comments so that the master’s memory remains alive. Beyond the fact that many of his most faithful pupils have perhaps (as is usual) surpassed their mentor, this does not imply that his interpretations should fall into oblivion. Every guitarist should listen to him, possibly together with Williams, Fisk, Bream, etc., precisely to broaden one’s horizons and to be able to grasp all those nuances that make the guitar a wonderful (and who knows, unparalleled) musical instrument!

I also want to share the Spotify playlist with many of Segovia’s recordings so you can immediately start enjoying them:


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Beethoven’s mind in the silence of his music

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of watching a documentary on Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (whom, from now on, I will call ABM, as was customary in his day), a pianist so shy that he granted only a couple of brief interviews throughout his life. As a result, the documentary had been constructed based more on the testimonies of friends and former students than on the living voice of the teacher.

Foto di Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (ABM) at the piano
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli at the piano

While discussing ABM’s style, an acquaintance reported ABM’s brief statement about studying new compositions. The content was more or less: “Before I play a new Beethoven sonata in public, I need at least six months because first I have to understand what the composer meant by that music.” Indeed, it is a bizarre statement, considering ABM’s talent and extraordinary technical ability.

However, I am interested in analyzing only one part of the statement, specifically when he states, “…what the composer meant.” Although it might seem unnecessary to discuss, the concept implied in such words is quite insidious for both musicology and the philosophy of music. Indeed, several questions arise, the answers far from trivial.

First, clarifying a possible interpretation I believe is wrong is good. That is, ABM meant that he needed a lot of time to understand and interpret the musical material in the best possible way. The reason I discard that assumption is precisely related to the figure of ABM. A pianist of his rank and experience would take a technical and stylistic study for granted before a performance and would hardly use the verb “say.” Perhaps he could point out the interpretive difficulties, the somewhat risky choices, and the wanting or not wanting to respect the cultural-historical context that saw the birth of that score. Still, it would make no sense to emphasize the need to understand what ultimately takes the form of a real message.

So we can move to the second question: is it possible to understand what Beethoven wanted to “say” with his music? To try to answer this, it is good to make a premise. A composition of music that is not entirely absolute may contain semantic elements of a linguistic nature, such as a title or dedication. Such information should, in principle, open the door to more informed interpretation.

For example, not everyone knows that Symphony No. 5 has been subtitled as “symphony of fate”; on the contrary, most people know its main motif, Sol-Sol-Mi bem. Thanks to the information in the subtitle, one concluded that that “tolling” so mighty was nothing more than the sound of fate “knocking at the door” of one’s life. In the various movements, Beethoven reuses those four notes in different tonal, rhythmic, and harmonic contexts to underscore an existential journey that starts from the initial disturbing surprise and moves from rebellion and struggle to a state of quiet acceptance (a condition very dear to the composer, who often went out of his way to emphasize the need to pursue the path of joy and serenity).

What is stated, while likely, remains arbitrary, lacking information to test the hypotheses. However, living in an inter-subjective reality based on conventionality, we can take it for granted that Beethoven’s will obeyed the same logical rules that we commonly apply as well and, therefore, that our interpretation is most likely correct (from an objective point of view-since, in the purely subjective sphere, it could be replaced by more imaginative mental processing of the musical material).

But if this reasoning was possible because of the subtitle, what could we say about the sonatas without it? In addition, when any linguistic denotation has a vague character (e.g., “Pastorale” or “Eroica” symphonies always by Beethoven), can we understand the “narrative” intentions in the composer’s mind? The “Pastorale” symphony must evoke a succession of rural scenery, perhaps elicit images of meadows, vegetation, ponds, streams, free-roaming animals, and so on, but what else could it possibly say?

It is now musicologically accepted that music is asemantic. And when you want to denote it as language, you always refer to the emotions aroused, certainly not to philosophical disquisitions or the meticulous description of a field of poppies with a few trees and a couple of horses quietly trotting along. Thus, can we infer that ABM implicitly referred to the emotions Beethoven wished to arouse in listeners?

A bucolic landscape, like those that inspired Beethoven as he wrote his Pastoral symphonyThis possibility is likely but opens the door to an additional problem. Suppose music is inherently capable of arousing emotions. In that case, if the production of the sounds recorded on the score is sufficient to trigger particular emotional reactions, why would one take six months to figure out what the composer wanted to “say”? In other words, if I say “the pen is on the table,” the process of signification based on knowledge of the Italian language (and, of course, of ordinary reality) should not need too much elucubration to reach comprehension.

Conversely, if I were to say “the pen tears oil,” I would be making use of poetic language based on metaphors and other rhetorical figures that might not allow one to arrive at either an unambiguous meaning or even activate an “instant” if not purely literal (and thus, often, meaningless) signification. But this scenario is incompatible with music, as it is firmly based on complex semantics and the descriptive possibility of a reality that not only can denote the smallest details but is also capable of producing abstractions that can be reused in other contexts through metaphors and metonyms.

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that music falls into the “immediate” communicative forms, whose effects, while remaining partially subjective, do not need to serve complex decoding to manifest themselves in their essence. For example, a piece in C minor, with a slow tempo, long notes, dynamics tending toward piano, etc., most likely will not need the subtitle “Funeral March” to arouse a sense of melancholy in the listener. If anything, linguistic information allows one to anticipate what one will hear and, perhaps, be surprised if, at some point, the composer modulates to a major key and switches to a tight rhythm with rapid ascending and crescendo passages. In that case, just like ABM, it would be expected to wonder what was going through the composer’s head!

But while asking this question, can music provide a satisfactory answer? If we were in the presence of a Bach cantata, where first the sorrow of death is described (with tonally minor music and melancholy chants) and then, also suddenly, a Corale in a major key begins with sopranos chanting “Hallelujah,” our surprise would be limited. On the other hand, we know the Gospel story, and we know that Bach, however imaginative and original, would never have taken the trouble to mock death with a brilliant jig and then assign the basses the resurrection hymn while the horns and basso continuo mumble a counterpoint with mournful, compassed features.

But all this is possible by the presence of a text, a linguistic narrative of a story. Music, willingly or unwillingly, will necessarily have to subordinate itself to the semantically dominant elements unless it renounces all structured (albeit asemantic) communicative aspirations altogether and takes refuge, for example, in dodecaphony to give rise to an autonomous and, in many ways, deliberately incapable of communicating by following conventional paths.

Going back to the original question, is it reasonable to assume that ABM wished to penetrate Beethoven’s mind almost like a psychic in front of an old portrait? It is much more reasonable to assume that he, instead, wanted to find some form of “resonance” between his feelings and what he projected in his mental image of a conflicted composer, perpetually striving for happiness but continually thwarted by life events (not least, his early deafness).

After all, isn’t that precisely the job of an interpreter? Wasn’t ABM to continue the creative process started by Beethoven by having his music unfold in the present time? If one accepts this hypothesis, “trying to understand what he meant” results in a process of internalization that does not claim semantic extension. At the same time, while accepting the immediacy of musical perception, he is not content to reproduce the notes as they are printed on the score but, on the contrary, wishes to become a composer himself to “color” with his palette those feelings and affections that music (even reproduced by a synthesizer) should normally arouse.

In this way, not only the formal elements (i.e., time, tone, rhythm, etc.) that define the contours of the “message” but also those nuances that, like the patina that forms on bronze, have the gift of uniqueness. But such uniqueness cannot result from an improvised performance. On the contrary, it needs a reading that takes license to “make music say” what music does not and never will say. Only in this way can the work of musical art be kept alive and given back to the audience of any age: not by playing, but rather, by creating at a given moment in history what has already been, definitely but never wholly, created at any time in the past.


Photos by David Tip


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I play at work and work by playing

Do you play games in your daily life? What do the words “playing time” tell you?

Work and Play yellow neon signI must admit, though reluctant, that I never play. I am not caught up only in “serious” commitments; I judge myself as the most scattered human being. I don’t like to play.

Everything I do must have value beyond the pure play aspect; otherwise, I get bored very soon. Maybe that’s just the way I play the game.

Moreover, if playing implies having fun, I am not far from the same condition. If what I’m doing doesn’t entertain me and give me excitement, I cannot last long.

I still wonder how it is possible to accept a boring routine with enthusiasm. But, of course, this is just my point of view, and I am also convinced that far too many people are slaves to their routines and have no way out.

I still remember a statement by Carmelo Bene on the Maurizio Costanzo Show (a very famous Italian talk show), “The greatest success of society is to emancipate man from the yoke of labor.” It is a harsh sentence and quickly criticized if misunderstood.

Work is certainly not bad, but how fulfilling (and romantic) it would be to do only what you like! In this sense, man should pursue the cause of emancipation.

You probably wonder what this lucubration has to do with the original question. The answer is simple: work that fulfills a game is the same as done with the utmost professional seriousness.

So, ultimately and subverting in part what I stated at the beginning, I play at least 12 hours a day, and I do not know the difference between weekdays and vacations, as well as the one existing between work and vacation.

In that sense, I consider myself very fortunate. However, the transition from a frustrating (albeit quite prestigious) condition to the life I live now was challenging and required considerable willpower.

Ultimately, I succeeded, although I am constantly striving toward ambitious goals. Will I get to where I hope? Of course, I do not possess a crystal ball or believe in hand lines.

However, I know I can be tenacious when necessary, and despite everything, even if you lose a run of the game, you can still checkmate even when all hope seems lost!


Photos by Antonio Gabola


 

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Avant-garde music or frenzied noise research?

black and gray audio mixerIs there a boundary separating musical experimentation from music itself? In other words, can it be established that when experiments stop producing music, they generate something else? To give a satisfactory answer (at least from some points of view), it is necessary to take several steps back and understand how Western music has evolved over the centuries.

I will refrain from doing a historical survey (a good music history book can provide all the necessary information). However, I will try to highlight my thoughts on the matter. First, it must be admitted without qualms that music constantly evolves. Experimentation is not new in the twentieth century but has continuously characterized new works from a specific cultural heritage.

From the Middle Ages onward, there has been a persistent change in music’s forms, instruments, and role in the social context. From a purely religious purpose of use focused on monodic singing (also to enable worshippers to understand the words), it shifted to a secular form of entertainment, with more or less committed poetic texts (i.e., the ancestor of today’s song).

Gradually, with the emergence of cafes, theaters, and venues for the general public (not just aristocrats), styles shifted to encourage involvement unrelated to particular contexts (e.g., liturgical). Musical forms have accelerated their evolution from the simplest counterpoints to complex harmonic polyphonies, of which Bach is undoubtedly the most outstanding exponent.

The ensembles have also expanded to include timbrically diverse instruments to produce sonic results much more adherent to their intended purposes. This process continued during the Classical (Mozart’s ability to restructure the concerto for solo instrument, creating a constant connection with the orchestra, is worth mentioning) and Romantic eras. During the latter, the piano, which has now become the king of keyboard instruments, allowed composers to express a wide range of emotions, even in a chamber and sometimes intimate context.

To better understand how articulate and profound this evolution has been, one only needs to listen to a prelude from a Bach suite and then to a piano work by Debussy or Satie. Even the least trained ear is capable of recognizing a variety of differences. But more importantly, perception, despite the peculiar characters of the different eras, appreciates the “edgy” sound of the harpsichord, as well as the dynamically and timbrically more varied sound of the piano, but, in both cases, it is unlikely to find itself in a lost condition.

Making a comparison, it is as if the first musicians planted a flag at a point in a boundless territory, and after that, each subsequent artist started circling the flag, moving away and then turning his or her gaze back to it. Undoubtedly, this “center,” for many centuries, was precisely the tonal center. The choice of diatonic scales and artifices for moving from one key to another elegantly has become the most essential concept in a composer’s harmonic training.

Another determining factor is continuity in instrumental development. The harpsichord indeed had elementary mechanics based on picks that struck the strings always with the same intensity. In contrast, a piano contains various mechanisms to reflect dynamics, note duration, timbre, etc. But, in both cases, what is noticeable is a background of similarity, similar to what one might discern in the features of a grandfather and his grandson.

All of this has been implicitly (and, after several ongoing debates, also explicitly) used to make music the preferred carrier of emotions and affect. Here, I will not go into the problems discussed by the philosophy of music. Still, it is sufficient to accept that music produces emotional involvement, both when it is accompanied by a text – in which case, the latter may even become dominant, and when it is pure or absolute music.

The composer, who has moved from a handicraft role to that of a full-fledged artist, should not immerse himself in philosophical and rationalist reflections but, on the contrary, privilege the beauty that the sound impact causes on the audience. In addition, since this is an emotional impact, the listener doesn’t need to be musically erudite to be able to discern a plot in the development of a work and to be able to recognize the smallest formal, melodic, and harmonic details.

mans face on white backgroundIn contrast to, for example, literature, in music, even intellectual understanding of the work is not required. Of course, how could one make any judgment about a novel that one did not understand? However, this does not apply to music. While a deep knowledge of music theory and long listening experience can provide additional tools for analysis, this does not detract from the fact that even a “musically illiterate” can make an aesthetic judgment about a piece.

Some may object that such judgment cannot have sufficient maturity to stand as genuine music criticism, but this is not a problem. Suppose the task of music is to represent, more or less objectively, states of mind. In that case, any listener is ipso facto qualified for the simple reason that he or she has a brain capable of triggering emotional and moving reactions in the same way as a critic with a vast store of theoretical knowledge.

At this point, it is possible to focus on the avant-garde experimentation in the twentieth century. The question I pose to the reader is straightforward: can you call an electronic piece composed at a phonology studio based on an intellectualistic analysis of a particular object beautiful? Or, can Stockhausen elicit any emotion with his “broken” string quartet with individual musicians engaged inside as many helicopters?

After all, if ethics has to decide right or wrong, aesthetics cannot help but reach and overcome the dilemma of whether a work of art is beautiful or ugly. From this point of view, the vanguard seems to want to avoid this kind of judgment altogether. It is not at all true that if art is to represent truth, it must also be able to be ugly. Instead, art must know how to represent even unpleasant truths beautifully. To understand what I am asserting, think of Picasso’s Guernica. The painter depicts the atrocities of a bloody civil war, but no observer could lightly claim that the painting is ugly because it is isomorphic to an equally ugly truth.

Similarly, music can represent different truths, both pleasant and unpleasant, but it should never give up the aesthetic commandment of beauty. Never mind that work is meant to reproduce the noises of a city in turmoil through an evocative series of scrolling and often unpleasant sounds. Should this be the goal, the composer should produce a beautiful work whose theme is the swirling noises of a metropolis.

Similarly, using purpose-built synthesizers and gadgets instead of traditional instruments is not stigmatizing. As long as the result does not require a preliminary intellectualist analysis to understand the why (if any) of a sequence of sounds devoid of motifs, phrases, antecedents and consequents, cadences, and any other formal structure suitable to make the enjoyment of music fluent and “sensible.”

Thus, the problem is not related to the means and perhaps not even to the ends per se, but rather to the preconditions necessary to replace aesthetics with a rationalist approach. They have turned out to be decidedly fallacious and witness the decadence of the avant-gardes and the oblivion into which most works created following such principles have fallen.

However, atonal music deserves a separate discussion. For example, much of Schoenberg’s research does not sacrifice aesthetics but makes instrumental use of it, bordering on its domain but still genuine. Likewise, many composers who favored atonal freedom have not abandoned the enjoyability of their pieces. Although the titles often indicate abstract research, the sonic results are developed with very often “classical” criteria, focusing on particular atmospheres to arouse in the listener (e.g., Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata or the works of Leo Brouwer).

In a later article, I will focus more on non-serial atonality. For now, I would like to reiterate the summary of my point of view (that of many famous philosophers of music). Music is not literature and should never attempt to be. This claim is dangerous and a harbinger of unforgivable errors. Thus, the goal of art is to pursue the beautiful, even in the representation of the ugly. It is also not recommended to turn a music enjoyment experience into an exercise in logic and search for meaning whose existence is often questionable.

There is nothing wrong with experimenting; on the contrary, as I have already said, it is a natural process that must be harnessed to build on the shoulders of giants. However, once in a while (thankfully, less and less now), before engaging in semi-engineering and less artistic activities, it would not hurt to ask, “But would a motorist listen to this music while driving to work?


Photos by Adi Goldstein and Serhii Tyaglovsky


 

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Is 100 metronomes music? Aesthetics and semantics of a Ligeti experiment.

György Ligeti is famous for his musical experimentation, marked atonality, and pursuit of “static” music. He is also credited with the highly original symphonic poem of the 100 Metronomes. For those who have never listened to it, I have included the original video:

YouTube player

At this point, I would like to ask some questions concerning the philosophy of music. The first concerns the result: is it a symphonic poem? A fundamental point must be made clear to give an adequate answer. A symphonic poem is a strongly thematic work. It should not be counted among the examples of absolute music, as the composer has chosen a poetic or narrative reference to be evoked, expanded, and ultimately described by his music. The critical element is precisely the extra-musical theme. Unlike absolute music, which contains almost no “narrative” information, a symphonic poem arises and develops from another work. It germinates from someone else’s work and becomes a homage to the artist and his work.

What to say about monostrumentalLigeti’s symphonic poem? To the best of my knowledge, it is not inspired by any poetic work (then again, what should it be?), so we could say that the composer used a kind of license to call “100 Metronyms” a symphonic poem. On the contrary, any objection regarding the ensemble (this is certainly not a regular orchestra) should be rejected, as metronomes, although not musical instruments, could be likened to percussive objects. Therefore, although obtorto collo, we can say that the orchestra is, with 100 equal “instruments.”

The initial question arises again: is this properly music? A metronome produces a feeble metallic sound (its job is to be heard while playing), and it is not a leap to say that it is timbrically less gifted than a timpani. In any case, it produces a sound, and therefore, the result of a succession of beats is ipso facto a musical sequence, even if it is homorhythmic and always consists of the same note. So, it seems to me that it is superfluous to spend further words to support the cause of musicality. Ligeti’s symphonic poem is music. Simple, monotonous, annoying, feel free to add whatever adjective you like, but still music.

We come now to semantics. There is no accompanying text, neither poetic nor prosastic, but this does not detract from the fact that careful analysis of the dynamics of the composition can reveal its implied meaning. Each metronome has a different reserve (i.e., lifetime) and speed. Once the gimmick has been started, all the metronomes begin to beat together. The duration (i.e., the number of non-pause beats) of each “instrument” is quasi-random, and so is its rhythmic tempo (in musical language, we might say that there are minims, semiquavers, quavers, semiquavers, etc.). Ligeti intends to symbolize a multitude with definite characteristics:

    • The multitude is initially homogenized (all instruments are identical and have the same possibilities)
    • Each specimen, however, has naturally distinctive traits (power reserve and time)
    • At the beginning of the performance, the multitude manifests itself by recreating a collective homologation. That is, it merges into a timbrically monotonous whole (i.e., the life of an alienated collectivity represented only by a swirling hubbub with neither form nor even intelligible content)
    • Every metronome is subject to “personal” obsolescence. The charges will run out at different times, transforming the buzzing hubbub into an increasingly silent ensemble of chimes. Finally, every metronome will be “dead,” leaving only silence, also homologated but still louder than any ideology.

The semantics of the work are thus crystal clear and, like a true symphonic poem, express several extra-musical philosophical concepts. From this point of view, nothing can be alleged to discredit Ligeti. Just as Strauss set Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” to music without being able to evoke individual scenes with great precision, Ligeti stages a performance that leaves it up to the listener to let his or her mind wander among all the implications that arise from the above general considerations.

The last point that remains to be examined concerns aesthetics. Can it be said that this symphonic poem is beautiful? This is an arduous problem that certainly cannot be exhausted in a few lapidary statements. I am not a music critic, so I avoid “dangerous” lucubration. However, I firmly believe that the problem can be traced back to an underlying question: beyond semantics, is absolute music pleasing to the ear? Can enjoyment be derived from it?

The 100 metronomes beat with different tempos; this creates a phase shift between the beats, resulting in what can be likened to a quasi-stochastic process (in fact, it is perfectly deterministic since we are aware of every piece of information necessary to predict precisely what the future will be), characterized by behavior very similar to that of noise. The listener will soon have the unpleasant sensation of a tormenting din, similar to that which can be heard in crowded clubs by diverting attention from our interlocutors. Such a feeling certainly cannot be a source of enjoyment, and without much ado, I would even go so far as to say that it is decisively unpleasant and aesthetically ugly.

But referring to the Schoenberg school, if art is to express objective truth (which cannot always be beautiful), it must take full responsibility for being ugly whenever necessary. Ligeti’s goal is not to cheer nor to paint rural landscapes (as in Beethoven’s pastoral symphony) but rather to musically express a reality that is inevitable, unpleasant, and, even more seriously, politically manipulated to promote homogenization. The sound result can only be “bad.” It has to be! Any different attempt would be doomed to failure concerning its semantics.

Thus, we can conclude by saying that the symphonic poem of the 100 metronomes is an alternative form of such a musical genre (it carries the semantic content in itself instead of referring to a different text), is a musical composition (despite making minimal use of notes, timbres, and rhythm) and is rightly ugly, as it is perfectly consistent with the content represented. Of course, the above possesses a strong character of subjectivity, so I can only invite readers to listen, re-listen, and finally come to their judgment.


 

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